Updated: Apr 16
“Thus to challenge patriarchy, to dispute the idea that it is men who should be dominant figures in the family and society, is to be seen not as fighting against the male privilege, but as attempting to destroy African tradition, or to subvert Afrikaner ideals or undermine civilized and deemed British values.”
The South African Education and the Ideology of Patriarchy by Daniella Coetzee.
Patriarchy is one the oldest social institutions worldwide which characterizes cultures, religions, governments and nations, and happens to be one of the firmest foundations of gender inequality, gender-based violence, sexual harassment, unequal pay and the notion that women should be second class citizens relative to men. And, of course, it nurtures the basic misogyny in our societies and annoyance that comprises the male ego and pride we face on a daily basis as women.
Defining patriarchy through the lens of persistently persuading society to offer precedence to all entities male while ensuring that all entities female are inferior assigns superiority of the male species, in turn establishing the status quo. To highlight this definition in our society and life is to simply to trace it back to way-back-when, where the birth of a son was celebrated while that of a daughter was nature’s random punishment, adding to one’s budget yet another mouth to feed, and presenting the object of one’s patience for as long as it takes for the highest bidder to alight and take the girl away.
I shall spare the history lesson on how the environment has always favored men since biblical times as I am not highlighting history here but rather the struggle to uproot patriarchy. Our African traditions, especially, are mostly so consumed by the patriarchy it is almost impossible to separate what is simply humane as opposed to what is culturally right. By this, I mean going against patriarchy in society is to go against the majority of African cultures and going against the culture is one crime that is a rather big deal and insult to the elders we idolize so much.
Although I would like to write about how men are solely to blame for what the patriarchy has done to our society, because it is largely true that men are at the root of it, I would like to take this platform to discuss the role of women in the patriarchy. In all honesty, we, as women have religiously and unequivocally carried out all the outlines, rules and regulations, steps, points, hell, everything about the patriarchy. All men have had to do is prepare the template for us.
Take, for example, how girls are raised in Malawi. We are raised to see boys as a breed to be feared and respected from when we are separated from our mothers’ wombs. Remember how, at a certain age, we are separated from playing with boys, being redirected towards playing with Barbie dolls and wearing those very uncomfortable laced-up mini wedding dresses as children?
As we grow up, we are constantly told how boys are boys and girls are girls and that we must stay home, where our domain is in the kitchen, while the boys do the hunting, exterior sweeping and mostly sit down with the men after doing all that “work” while we, as girls, must bring the boys water as they rest after a days’ work. If we refuse or slack, we become non-marriage material because we have now become disrespectful and prime for being sat down while an avalanche of aunties descends on me to straighten me up. The boy, on the other hand, may disobey and misbehave and all that will said is that “boys will be boys” or “he is learning to be a man.” Thus begins the constant downfall of the girl as she grows to be a woman and the uplifting of the boy as he grows to be a man.
And there starts being told how to behave, dress, walk, talk and smile, and not because we want to be perceived as strong women, but to be perceived as a respectable fit for marriage. Our clothes are to be respectable and “decent” and worn in all attempts to not tempt the men lest they get tricked into temptation, considered a deliberate incitation to rape and sexual harassment.
Women must always watch what they say, especially around men who we must always respect lest we say something that’ll emasculate them, disrespect them or take away their almost God-given glory because, if we do, the consequent physical and emotional abuse and violence will have been on unforced invitation. It is always the woman’s fault because, remember, we were taught not to say anything that might invite backlash.
We have also succumbed to how to walk. We must always be careful because the way we carry our rear ends could have consequences; the paths we choose could have consequences; and who we walk with could decide an unpleasant fate.
See, the way we walk, talk and dress is not necessarily for our benefit but to benefit the men who, themselves, are not expected to conform to a similar set of rules on their conduct. Patriarchy has deemed it nearly impossible to be the man’s fault ever. As it has to be the woman’s fault, our mothers, aunties and grandmothers must make sure they concert to teach us the ways in which we are primed to satisfying the requirements of this man-friendly world we live in.
As women, we have constantly allowed these perceptions to grow and entrench themselves so deep in our day-to-day that it has started to feel normal. Take the example of the birth of a boy child. The joy and excitement is incomparable to that of the a girl because it symbolizes the birth of power. Superiority ordained from the moment the doctor announces it. The pride parents feel, the father to have his own mini-me, the man child in whom he shall impart the wisdom of masculinity and carry on the patriarchy, while the mother is proud to have provided the man with a son and not a daughter, defeats the simple, innocuous joy of having a child.
And woe to the other children as at the point of the boy child’s birth, his ascribed superiority is already shoved in the older but female siblings’ faces, and they must take it because he is now the second in command in the household. He shall be raised to embody the privileges of ‘malehood,’ which as women, we also continue to allow because…why not? It is the divine way life prescribes order and peace.
We have found a way to normalize patriarchy by making sure women have a “role” to play in it all, by making women the enforcers of the entire ideology without realizing just how damaging it can be on our welfare and rights as equal humans. Just how much work will it take to reverse the damages?
So, my question at this point to my fellow women is “why do we continue to embrace and perpetuate patriarchy?”
We could teach equality in the homes and mutual human recognition instead of enforcing the better narrative because, honestly, that line is now quite stale. We should probably look into something new: a society without the patriarchy, because with it still intact, our efforts towards equality, ending discrimination and putting an end to gender- based violence, sexual harassment, rape culture, discrimination, equal pay and basic human decency and respect will remain futile.
Jessica Mandanda is a 23 year-old feminist and gender activist. She is a writer and aspiring communications specialist...or rather as she would prefer to term it, "working toward it."